Saturday, January 11, 2003

One More Way to Lose Information
Andrea Foster at The Chronicle of Higher Education reports that some online publishers are deleting articles from their databases without informing subscribers.

Elsevier, the largest publisher of scientific journals, has deleted more than 30 journal articles, usually, according to the company, due to accusations or plagiarism, scientific misconduct or gross error. The most notorious case involved the removal of an article in Human Immunology about the genetic origins of Palestinians that referred to Israelis as "colonists" and same Palestinians were living in "concentration camps". Elsevier argues that the removed articles represent a fraction of the total of their published materials.

As Ms. Foster says, that is small solace to librarians and scholars who study the history of science and medicine. As more and more scientific literature is moved from print to a digital environment, they fear, holes in databases could leave researchers ignorant of why certain articles were considered questionable -- and may even lead to poor medical treatments and faulty scientific research. And, scholars ask, shouldn't researchers be warned about authors who plagiarize, or commit scientific fraud or misconduct?

Elsevier says that it plans to archive all its electronic journals, with the Royal Dutch Library in The Hague. Whether to include the withdrawn articles is currently under discussion.

This story illustrates why librarians still distrust the electronic environment for archiving purposes. For the print copies of the journals, Elsevier had to publish the usual retraction, which left the scholarly trail intact. However, more and more scientists are relying on the electronic databases for literature research, as they are easily accessible from their offices or homes through their library's subscriptions. And, especially in the scientific field, this could have real consequences. Dr. Drummond Remie, a deputy editor at The Journal of the American Medical Association points out that physicians, having read the article previously and remembering the contents, but unaware of the reasons why the article disappeared from the database, might, for example, prescribe medication based on discredited information.

Friday, January 10, 2003

An Incoherent Rant Against Evil
I haven't been watching TV of late. Not only do I have an Argentina problem at work that you would not believe, but my free time has been spent getting the house ready for my sister's wedding reception. Add the flu and a queasy stomach, and you can understand that the last thing I want is to indulge in the dubious nourishment of the glass teat (thank you Harlan Ellison!). However, last night, while Nyquil-ed to the eyebrows, I decided to watch the new Frontline episode. I wish profoundly that I had picked up a book instead.

It was the story of a company called McWane, who runs a number of pipe foundries all over the United States and Canada. Saying that the foundries run by McWane are outposts of hell is like calling hurricane a gentle breeze. The numbers of dead, wounded, and maimed is stunning. Safety equipment is either obsolete or nonexistant. The production line never stops, even while trying to repair it. Anyone who dares complain is fired. Every minute of every work day is choreographed to squeeze more out of the workers. Bathroom breaks are so infrequent that workers have been known to urinate in their pants. To protect their hands from boiling metal they are provided with $2 cotton gloves. In fact, in an environment where the average temperature is 130 degrees, management rations ice cubes.

McWane Inc. is a family-held company. The Mcwanes are leading citizens of Birmingham, Alabama. Their income from the company is rumored to be slightly under $2 billion dollars; this does not include real estate and other business holdings. They contribute millions of dollars to all the right charities, Universities, and civic institutions. And their plants kill and injure hundreds of people every year.

I don't like to throw the word "evil" around. Overuse has made it banal: the evils of eating meat, the evils of gun control, the evils of second-hand smoke. Like "liberal", "conservative", or "fucking", evil has lost its true meaning. But if you are looking for evidence of the existence of a real, independent entity called "evil," you can find it here.

Do you know the real meaning of the word "sin"? It means an offense against God. To be a sinner is not simply to break the rules. It has nothing to do with the trivial rantings of tv evangelists. To be a sinner means to violate your own soul. It means to lose your way so profoundly that you cannot return to your own human nature without an active act of Grace from the Almighty. By any definition of the word I can think of, these people are sinners.

Freedom of Speech, Again
Last week two shock jocks pulled a tasteless, unfunny joke, just like the many tasteless, unfunny jokes that are pulled everyday on AM radio in the United States. But because the two shock jocks were in Miami, and the target was the latest demon lord/ministering angel of Latin America, blogtopia is roiling. Conservatives are slapping their thighs and guffawing a la Hee-Haw, while liberals have taken to searching the FCC rules to see if the two silly asses can be prosecuted.

Let's go over it again, shall we?

1. Conservatives. Enjoy the gag. Just remember to suck it up when the tables are turned. There's nothing more annoying than your habit of whining like three-year-olds when your sacred cows get filleted and broiled.

2. Liberals. You cannot claim the constitutional high ground and then turn around and indulge in the same behavior you accuse your enemy of. It smacks of hypocrisy. And don't tell me there's a difference here; I remember we all laughed when Rick Mercer made Bush believe that a "poutine" was the prime minister of Canada.

The First Admendment is not a goddamned Chinese menu. It doesn't say Congress shall make no law ...abridging freedom of speech except if I don't like what they are saying. If you don't like it, close the book, put down the magazine, change the channel, turn it off. Write off nasty letters to the editor or demonstrate against it. I don't care. But don't try to suppress it.

Thursday, January 09, 2003

Memo to NASA
Long-ago memory:

Middle of the night. My Dad is shaking me awake.
"What is it?"
"Come on, you have to see something."
My Dad is something of an amateur astronomer, and we often stay up late to see meteor showers or eclipses. But this time, instead of the patio, we head for the living room.
"Where are we going?"
The living room is dark. The wooden shutters are closed, something we never did in summer.The old tv my dad had found somewhere as the Christmas present we're not supposed to have anymore is pushed up against the corner, the two pieces of stiff wire that served as antennas pushed out as wide as they will go. It's turned on, sound turned off. We sit on the floor, close to it, and turn it up a bit.
There's two men on the screen, wearing space suits. They are saying something, but my English is not good enough to understand the whole thing. It doesn't look like any of the tv shows we pirate off the Miami stations.
"Dad, what is it?"
"They're on the Moon. The Americans have landed on the Moon."
We're going to America. "Dad, you think I could go to the Moon? Someday?"
"Why not? In twenty years, they'll have a base on the Moon. Maybe even on Mars."

I'm still waiting.
We're still waiting.
I don't want to sound like I'm denigrating all the magnificent science you do; I'm not. I also understand that you compete for funding with other, more human and more pressing, needs. But by scaling down your vision to the possible, you have made it easy for all but the most hardened of us to turn away. You have forgotten something: in order to hold people's attention, there must be something grandly human about your plans. True adventure involves humans. Risking, suceeding, failing, and yes, sometimes dying.
We're still waiting.
I'm still waiting.

Thank Yous
Thanks to Digby, Paul, Melanie, David, Father Aelred, Scott, and Marci. Y'all rock big time!

Wednesday, January 08, 2003

Breast Cancer and Abortion, One More Time
I've had several e-mails from folk who say they have looked into the research and have come to the conclusion that there is indeed a link between breast cancer and abortion, and cannot see why I am so upset about the removal of the fact sheet stating the opposite from the National Cancer Institute website.

Since you were so nice as to come visiting and took the time to leave a message I hate to have to say this but you've missed the point.

Setting aside the fact of whether there is a link or not, the fact that congressmen saw fit to impose their views on a reputable scientific organization is troubling. The role of government-funded scientific and medical research centers like the CDC and the Cancer Institute is to ensure that the American citizen is provided with the best information available. We pay those scientists to evaluate the facts and give us their best judgment. Having those judgments voided by politicians with a ideological axe to grind brings the whole concept into disrepute. Two weeks ago, I would not have been upset if the National Cancer Institute had come out and said that they had re-evaluated the facts and had in fact found a link between breast cancer and abortion; now, as far as I, and many other women are concerned, everything coming out of their mouths may be politically motivated and therefore cannot be trusted.

And, before anybody speaks up, I would have felt the same if the Congressmen had been Democrats. Subjecting science to politics is a MAJOR REALLY REALLY REALLY bad idea. Or can't anyone spell "survival of the fittest"?

On Puritanism and Politics
Puritanism is the haunting fear that someone, somewhere, may be happy. H.L. Mencken
In America sex is an obsession, in other parts of the world it is a fact. Marlene Dietrich
You're really going to impeach the President because he has a bird on the side? Have all Americans gone nutters, then? London Bartender

I am one of those people who was politically activated, so to speak, by the Bill Clinton Sideshow. I had voted for Clinton primarily as a reaction to the right-hard turn taken by the 1992 Republican Party platform. It was one of those acts best described by Robert Heinlein: If you are part of a society that votes, then do so. There may be no candidates and measures you want to vote for... But there are certain to be ones you want to vote against. But the relentless anti-Clinton conservative drumbeat, the multiple investigations, the Arkansas "revelations" that on close scrutiny held as much water as my colander, the Republican disregard for the majority opinion on the Lewinsky matter, all led me to take a closer look at the Republican party leadership. And, except for a few individuals that seemed to be trying, like the English king of legend, to hold back the tide and return the party to its origins, all I saw was a group of people that had decided that they had the God-given right to overthrow an elected president and impose their own fundamentalist vision of America on the rest of us. I decided that, as much as I disagreed with them in other matters, I belonged in the Democratic party.

From a broad perspective, however, the Clinton impeachment is part and parcel of a long history of partisan attacks and rumor mongering against presidents' and presidential candidates' personal lives. It started with John Adams, during the 1800 campaign, when his opponents accused him of employing Pinckney to procure four pretty girls as mistresses, two for each of them. Adams, amused, wrote to a friend, I do declare upon my honor, if this is true, General Pinckney has kept them all for himself and cheated me out of my two. Adams' successor, Thomas Jefferson, was labeled a "libertine" and accused of fathering children with a young slave named Sally Hemings. Andrew Jackson was called a home wrecker, and Ulysses S. Grant, Grover Cleveland, and Warren Harding were accused of fathering illegitimate children.

Whether the accusations were true or not--and a number of them were indeed true--this history shows that politicians have always been able to use personal attack to tap into a deep strain of Puritanism existing in the American political character. This Puritanism harks back to the settlers of New England, whose goal was a nation under religious authority where individual morality was tightly regulated in order to produce the New Jerusalem that would usher in the Kingdom of God. For these people, the drift away from traditional Christian patriarchal society is a disaster of cataclysmic proportions. They see it as their obligation to force America out of its liberal decadence and back to its proper role as the upholder of Western conservatism ( See William Bennett, The Death of Outrage and Robert Bork, Slouching Towards Gomorrah).

These conservatives were outraged--still are--that the majority of Americans hold to the view that the political and the personal can be properly be separated into different spheres, and could simultaneously hold Clinton to be a man of low morals and a good president. They could not understand--still can't--that the majority of Americans saw the case as one based on sexual matters, and perceived it as hypocritical that a group of men whose own lives could not withstand scrutiny were questioning another's morals. They see themselves as holding the highest moral ground, and cannot understand that when we look at them we see--someone with an agenda. Just like the rest of us.

Nessie, Anyone?
CNN reported back in June that researchers have been picking up unidentified biological sounds using the sound surveillance system set up by the U.S. back in the 1960s to track Soviet submarines. According to Christopher Fox of NOAA, most underwater sounds are like voiceprints, and scientists can easily identify whales, boats, ocean corrents, and volcanic activity, but some still remain a mystery.

Does anybody have a follow-up?

Tuesday, January 07, 2003

Once in Love with Miles, Always in Love with Miles...
I spent the morning at the doctor's, having all kinds of nasty intrusive stuff done. I hate feeling sick. It turns me into a whiny kid and all I want to do is scream at whatever annoys me. So, picture me, fingers-in-my-ears-eyes-screwed-shut-tongue-sticking-out. I don't want to be serious about anything because serious these days hurts more than needles (have you looked, really looked at the "economic stimulus" package?).

Let me tell you about Miles. He's probably 4'8" in his stocking feet. His bones are subject to sudden breakage, although that seems to have been taken care of lately. He has seizures. He kicks serious ass. He just got married. And I'm in love with Miles.

OK, you science-fiction types know already: I'm talking about Miles Vorkossigan, the hero of Lois McMaster Bujold's series. My love affair started about six years ago, when someone gave me a copy of The Vor Game. I started reading Friday night and ended Saturday afternoon, with absolutely no sleep, showered, got dressed, and went to the bookstore to get as many other titles in the series as I could find.

As I've mentioned in some discussions about LotR, what attracts me first to a science fiction or fantasy book is its "universe". The author must make me believe that this is a real world. That does not mean that it must follow our physical rules or even acknowledge everyday limitations. I'm as willing to suspend disbelief as the next person; but the construct must have internal logic, and enough rich detail to allow the reader to ease past the inevitable reallity bumps. I don't want to be reminded that there's a humbug behind the curtain.

Bujold is one of the best universe builders around. I'd give a lot to see her background notes; each culture's history, anthropology, politics, and technology seems thoroughly worked out. And the information is doled out slowly, a paragraph here and there, so that your images builds layer on layer, and you lose the desire to pick it apart, which is the besetting sin of many veteran science-fiction fans. But I would judge that Bujold's strongest gift is for character. Her people have gifts and flaws, joys and sorrows, so that their actions spring from character and history. Even the walk-ons are interesting.

A little background: the planet Barrayar was settled by colonists using wormhole technology. Tthe wormhole collapsed soon after settlement, leaving Barrayar isolated from the rest of the Galaxy. Terraforming had to be abandoned, so the Barrayaran genome was under assault from all the Barrayaran mutagens(a mention is also made of something called "the fire" that the ships went through to reach Barrayar). Mutations start appearing among the Barrayaran newborns. In order to preserve "humanity", all children showing signs of mutation were killed.

During these centuries, Barrayar slips back into a feudal society under the leadership of a bunch of self-annointed aristocrats who use the preffix "Vor" with their surname (Vor is russian for "thief", by the way). Two of the greatest Vor families are the Vorkossigans and the Vorbarras. The Vorbarras become Emperors of Barrayar and ally themselves with the Vorkossigans through marriage. Unfortunately, when the Universe comes calling again, it is through a vicious invasion by troops of the Cetagandan empire. The Barrayarans fight them off, but the Cetagandan parting gift is nuclear fallout, which, of course, only reinforces their fear of mutation. Still, the Barrayarans go out into the local quadrant to start building their own Empire (hey, what's a Emperor without some worlds to lord it over?)

So Miles Vorkossigan is born into this Universe. Patriarchal, militaristic, with a reinforced prejudice of mutation of any sort. Because his mother, Cordelia Naismith Vorkossigan, a Betan ex-ship captain and the wife of Lord Protector and Regent Aral Vorkossigan, is attacked with a biological weapon during her pregnancy, Miles is born a dwarf. He is also brilliant, stubborn, and, as his mother describes him, a bloody hyperactive little bugger. And he is one step away from the throne...

Bujold also has a gift for language:

Mother calls it my great gift. Tests are gifts, and great tests are like great gifts. Of course, it's widely agreed that my mother is a bit strange... The Warrior's Apprentice

The only thing you cannot trade for your heart's desire is your heart. Memory

Reputation is what other people think they know about you. Honor is what you know about yourself.A Civil Campaign

And my favorite: I went shopping. You want to see what I bought? Barrayar

My only beef with Bujold is Ivan. Miles' cousin, and so far, second Heir Presumptive to the throne of Barrayar. He's a bit of comic relief, but he has potential. Come on, Lois, it's time for Ivan to have his Great Test.

Monday, January 06, 2003

And Now They Are Lying To Us Stories like this is why I have always suspected that the whole issue of abortion has little to do with life and a lot to do with power. Over women. Over me.

A few weeks ago I participated in a free-for-all over at Up Yours (link on the right) with some pro-fetus types who seem to believe that women are amoral slatterns who, if left uncontrolled by the right-thinking members of society, will use abortion as birth control and get themselves scraped out once or twice a year for the fun of it. I was given to understand that my support for abortion rights for women was support for murder, since all right-thinking beings know that a fetus is a human being from the point of conception; some were magnanimous enough to tell me that since women were going to have abortions anyway, they would stoop to a compromise that would outlaw late term abortions. In other words, they would hold their noses and agree to murder as long as they got to pick who got killed.

I have often been asked about my personal beliefs on abortion, and generally I have refused to give them, because I believe that abortion is not the issue here. Power is. A certain stripe of American conservative wants the power to impose their social, religious, and moral standards on the rest of us. And a very big part of those standards involve the place and role of women in society.

Why do I believe that? Because of the other items in the conservative agenda.

The same people who oppose abortion also oppose comprehensive sex education programs for teenagers. The United States has the highest adolescent birth and abortion rates in the industrialized world. According to one statement from the American Academic of Pediatrics, in the absence of effective, comprehensive sex education at home or in the schools, television and other media have become the leading sex educators of children and adolescents today. Yet the current conservative-driven administration will fund only abstinence programs in schools, this in spite clear evidence that teenagers are having more sex, earlier, and with more partners. Theyhave also cut funding to all international assistance programs that even mention abortion, even though those programs also offer contraceptive and safe-births options. And even though, according to the Population Council, even modest increases in effective contraceptive use can reduce abortion rates.

The same people who oppose abortion also oppose social safety net programs that would provide assistance to single or low-income mothers and dependent children. The U.S. Conference of Mayors reports that the new federal budget cuts public housing by $382 million, while job training programs will be cut from $225 million to $45 million. In other words, it's very important that the child be born; after that, good luck to her.

In the face of this kind of social engineering, it's difficult to believe that abortion opponents are only acting out of a religious belief in the immorality of abortion. Rather, they seem to be acting out of a desire to create a society in their own image: Judeo-Christian, authoritarian, repressive. They wish to turn America back from a multicultural, multireligious society to a never-never time of working daddies, stay at home mommies, and obedient children. And they will use any tool at hand.